Political analysts say that the drug lords could corrupt the presidential race even without having to meddle directly in those campaigns and that their attempts to boost local candidates or suppress votes could contaminate the process at every level.
Such threats appear to put Mexican democracy at a critical juncture, as the country struggles to escape from the decades-long shadow of corrupt, one-party rule while new, darker forces angle for power.
Five governorships, hundreds of congressional seats and nearly 1,000 local-level races are at stake, but the top prize is Mexico’s presidency, an office that the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, dominated for much of the 20th century and appears poised to recapture.
Despite concerns that drug gangsters will bankroll some candidates while intimidating — or assassinating — others, a package of new laws targeting election-related crimes has stalled in Mexico's National Congress since April. That leaves little time to safeguard the upcoming vote, Juan Luis Vargas, Mexico’s chief prosecutor for electoral crimes, said in an interview.
“The appetite of these criminal groups is infinite,” said Vargas, explaining that the cartels operate by an “economic logic” not unlike any business interest looking to gain influence. “They want certain guarantees from the authorities: that their monopolies will be protected and their competitors won't be allowed to operate in a given territory.”
Mexico's 2012 vote is even more at risk from pernicious influences than the last presidential election in 2006, Vargas said, because the country's mafias have honed their methods of corruption, opting to finance campaigns rather than buy off officials after they are in power.
“They say: ‘Why would I want to pay off the authorities if I can own them from the start?’ ” he said.
Elections held Nov. 13 in Mexico’s troubled state of Michoacan are viewed as an ominous sign of what could happen to the vote this summer. Polls showed the sister of President Felipe Calderon, Luisa Maria Calderon, with a solid lead in the governor's race, but she ended up losing to PRI candidate Fausto Vallejo Figueroa amid multiple allegations of voter intimidation.
Local news media revealed audio recordings of a La Familia drug cartel leader allegedly threatening to kill voters' family members if they cast ballots for a candidate who was supposedly backed by the rival Knights Templar gang. Federal authorities say they are investigating, as candidates in other towns also reported threats.